"War is emptiness," postulates Myroslava, a young woman living in Krasnohorivka, Ukraine.
She's dressed in black and sitting in front of a black background, speaking her observations in front of a camera set up in her family's living room. Outside is her war-torn village, the site of steady shellings in a years-long face-off between Ukraine and Russia. As Myroslava reflects on residing in a place continually wrecked by war, her family quietly listens off-camera, bunched up in the corners of their small home.
The kind-eyed and determined matriarch of the family, Anna, and her three other children are all part of Myroslava's film project, which tries to document their experience living in Krasnohorivka. Each family member has an equal hand in shooting, acting, and shaping the film, which makes up part of the documentary The Earth Is Blue as an Orange, now screening at the 2021 Seattle International Film Festival. Myroslava has big dreams of becoming a cinematographer, and telling her family's story is a crucial part of that.
The coming together of Myroslava's film is expertly captured by director and poet Iryna Tsilyk who met the young woman at a film camp years prior. Tsilyk isn't necessarily interested in the politics of the conflict but instead in the family's wartime experience as civilians. The result is a remarkable documentary about this family's resilience and cinema's ability to be a means of escape.
In The Earth Is Blue as an Orange, the scary moments of bombing and shelling are coupled with domestic portraits—birthday parties, tooth pulling, graduations. War is integrated into life in Krasnohorivka. Myroslava takes artistic pictures of her boyfriend in a building destroyed by military shelling. Bombs rattle off in the background as the family cuddles up and watches a silent movie. Tiles, shattered glass, and bits of walls are always underfoot.
There's a lot of joy in their household too. Anna—who Tsilyk calls the real director of the family's movie—is an enthusiastic supporter of Myroslava's film and dreams of becoming a cinematographer, accompanying her daughter to a film school audition. She sees the movie as an opportunity to build her children up and get them through this conflict.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the documentary is in the cleavage between what's in front of Myroslava's camera and what's behind it.
At one point, the family enlists several real soldiers (and a tank!) for an acted scene where Anna pleads with them to give her medicine for her sick son. As Myroslava shoots the scene, it's a dramatic affair. But once the camera stops rolling, Anna emotionally recounts how the scene is based in truth. When faced with a feverish child, no money, and stores closed during a round of bombing, she once had to ask soldiers for medicine.
Another similar moment happens when the family plans a shelling scene while an actual shelling goes off outside their home. Though frightening, they almost jovially shuffle their way to shelter.
There's always a tension between the family's reality and how they choose to depict it. We learn to understand the family's film as a means of catharsis and escape from the emptiness that accompanies a warzone.
Tsilyk deftly navigates these switches in tone and seriousness, easily weaving in light bickering or selfie-taking with traumatic recollections of wartime shelling. But at the heart of The Earth Is Blue as an Orange is a fearless family taking their story—and their city's story—into their own hands.
Read more about our top SIFF recommendations here. The digital fest runs through April 18.